WASHINGTON – A divided federal appeals court panel said a St. Mary’s County social worker did not violate the rights of a mother whose children were taken from her “crying and screaming,” even though the children were in no immediate danger.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling that Alexis Zoss did not commit “any intentional wrongdoing” in the case, and thus had qualified immunity against the suit filed by the mother, Gayle Martin.
The majority said the seizure of Martin’s children — Justin, 8, and Jaime, 2 — by Los Angeles police and children’s services officials in 1997 likely resulted from a misunderstanding between St. Mary’s County and Los Angeles.
In a dissent, however, Circuit Judge William B. Traxler Jr. said Zoss’ behavior “shocks the conscience” because there was no evidence that the children were in danger. Zoss could not have reasonably believed that her actions were lawful, and thus violated the mother’s rights, he said.
Martin’s lawyer, Kenneth McPherson, said he believes Zoss “misrepresented the facts to Los Angeles to get them to jump” and check up on Martin, and said he would ask the full appellate court to review Wednesday’s ruling.
The case began in January 1997, when St. Mary’s County school officials told the St. Mary’s Department of Social Services that Martin had allowed Justin to miss 66 days of kindergarten and 71 days of first grade.
The social services department went to court to have Justin declared a “child in need of assistance.” At a hearing in May, the court awarded legal custody of Justin to the department, but said his mother would retain physical custody of him and legal and physical of Jaime.
The court set a second hearing in October, and ordered Martin to undergo counseling and to make a good-faith effort to ensure Justin’s school attendance in the meantime.
In July, however, Martin moved with her children to Los Angeles, where they lived in a community center and she enrolled Justin in a nearby school. According to court documents, Martin told both her family and county officials she was moving, filled out a change of address form at the post office and gave county officials her new address when she got to California.
On Oct. 9, Los Angeles social workers and police appeared at the center, where Martin said they claimed to have a court order to seize her children and take them back to Maryland for the scheduled Oct. 16 hearing.
But there never was a court order. And the appeals court said that if there was a suggestion that the children were in danger, it “could have arisen from a misunderstanding in the communication” between the two agencies.
The children were returned to their mother the next day, after Martin’s attorney and the lawyer appointed to represent her children went to court in St. Mary’s County and got an emergency order for the release of the children. The department agreed to the release.
Martin sued. But the district court granted summary judgment for the county and Zoss, saying they were acting in their official capacities.
“I’m delighted that the majority agreed with our position,” said Shelly Mintz, the assistant attorney general who represented the county. “The reality was we had a family that one of the children was in the legal custody of the state of Maryland, and they got up and left for California.”
McPherson said he does not begrudge social workers the job they face, but that this case went too far.
“You have to give government workers, especially social workers, the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “(But) I think these judges were just being too generous to the social worker.”
The child-in-need-of-assistance hearing that sparked the seizure was eventually dismissed after the two sides reached an agreement, Mintz said.